It’s the offseason, which means it’s time to dig through the annals of college basketball history in search of something that can satisfy the dreadful boredom that comes around this time each year. A fine source of information comes from looking at previous champions and Men’s NCAA Tournament winners.
And when you’ve got a sport with as much history as college basketball, you’ve got a lot of champions. And when you’ve got a lot of champions, you’ll have some title winners that, to today’s fans, just sound weird.
The NCAA Tournament’s Weirdest Winners
Yes, it’s true that the NCAA Tournament was not always the landmark 68-team event it is now. And yes, it’s true that the college basketball landscape was very different when these titles were won than it is today.
But where’s the fun in keeping that in mind? There are few things better than getting to say your team has won a national championship. Technicalities or no technicalities, a natty is a natty. And that can’t be taken away.
Unless you’re Louisville (sorry Cardinals).
1943 NCAA Tournament: Wyoming Cowboys
For a team that has only made two NCAA Tournaments in the past 30 years, the Cowboys actually have an impressive basketball pedigree, though some might consider it ancient history.
Throughout the 1940s and early 50s, Wyoming had a string of successful seasons along with several tournament appearances. The Cowboys’ best result came in 1943 when they won it all for the first and only time in school history.
Wyoming dominated their schedule that year. They would lose to Duquesne early in the year—their only loss to a college team. The Cowboys would finish the year 31-2, with a loss to a Denver Legion team their only other defeat.
Yeah, Wyoming played against a Denver Legion team. That wasn’t even their weirdest opponent. This was in the middle of World War II, and with such a tumultuous environment there were talks of canceling the entire season. And so, the Cowboys played a variety of interesting opponents. They started the year with a doubleheader against Fort Warren’s Second Regiment and Fifth Regiment to open the season. Other highlights included games against Phillips 66 and the Poudre Valley Creamery.
It was an interesting year, but Wyoming made it through. The Cowboys squeaked by Oklahoma and Texas before defeating Georgetown 46-34 to win their first and only title.
But the season wasn’t over yet. Wyoming was also pressed into playing a “World Championship” game against St. Johns, who had just won the NIT. Given that the NIT was just as (if not more) prestigious as the NCAA Tournament at the time, the showdown was a de facto battle to crown the one true national champion. The Cowboys would win that game in overtime, with all proceeds going to the Red Cross.
1943 was a weird season with a weird champion, but sometimes that’s just how this sport goes.
1947 NCAA Tournament: Holy Cross Crusaders
Holy Cross did not have a home gym for the 1946-47 season. Their “home games” were played 40 miles away.
Holy Cross started the season 4-3.
Holy Cross ended the season 27-3 and won the NCAA Tournament.
Yes, the 1947 tournament only invited eight teams. But the Crusaders were by no means favorites.
Wins over Navy and CCNY (more on them later) carried Holy Cross to the title game. One semi-comfortable win over Oklahoma later and the boys from little Catholic school nobody had ever heard of were suddenly national champions.
One local sportswriter christened the 1947 team the “Cinderella Kids of college basketball” upon their title game victory. The description fits. Holy Cross took on the best college basketball teams in the country and came out on top. Regardless of the size of the tournament, that’s something any member of the Crusader faithful should be proud of. Even today, as they languish in the Patriot League.
For your extra dose of trivia: This was the first NCAA Tournament championship won by a team from the New England area. The next men’s winner from the region would be UConn in 1999.
1950 NCAA Tournament: CCNY Beavers
I saved the best for last. Believe it or not, the City College of New York was once one of college basketball’s most notable programs. Throughout the 1940s the Beavers made several NCAA Tournament appearances, but their highest and lowest moments came during a stretch from 1949-51.
By the end of the 1949-50 regular season, the Beavers had accumulated a 17-5 record. Not bad, but not enough for a spot in the final AP Poll of the year.
They finished the postseason with a record of 24-5. How? The Beavers squeaked into the NIT, ran the table, and defeated Bradley in the finals, who themselves had finished the year on top of the AP poll. Then CCNY did the exact same thing in the NCAA Tournament and defeated Bradley again in the finals to be crowned undisputed national champions.
Soon enough, the CCNY Beavers were the darlings of New York City. Two underdog tournament wins, a national championship and all achieved with a roster full of New York natives, including Black and Jewish starters in an era in which that was not common at all.
The Beavers were making headlines across the city (and the country). It appeared as if CCNY would potentially take its place as one of college basketball’s permanent powerhouses.
And then the scandal hit. Key players on the CCNY roster were implicated in a point-shaving scandal that would end up inflicting damage on several programs. But none were so greatly affected as CCNY, who would go on to deemphasize athletics as a whole and eventually drop down to what is now known as Division III, never to return to their previous status as kings of the college basketball world.
Here’s one last dose of trivia: This is the only NCAA Division I basketball championship by a school that is currently not a part of Division I. This is also the only team to ever win both the NIT and NCAA Tournament in the same year—a feat that, due to rules against appearing in both tournaments, will never again be achieved.
Now you have a few more pieces of random sports trivia that might come in handy someday. Or maybe you can use these long ago titles for bragging rights if you happen to be a Beaver or a Cowboy or a Crusader. Or not.
Either way, it’s interesting to learn about.
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